What Exactly Is Teflon? And Do I Need to Worry About It?

updated Oct 7, 2020
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(Image credit: Leela Cyd)

Nonstick cookware is a great convenience — besides being able to use less oil for cooking, it makes cleanup a breeze. Perfect eggs, every time, with virtually no scrubbing? I’ll take it! But in recent years, nonstick coatings like Teflon have come under fire, to the point where many people have abandoned their nonstick cookware.

Are those fears still founded? Were they ever? We did some research to find out.

What is Teflon?

Teflon is a brand name of a chemical coating, polytetrafluoroethylene (thankfully shortened and called PTFE). It was first made in the 1930s to create a non-reactive, nonstick surface. It’s known for its use in cookware, although it can also be used to coat other materials like wires or fabrics to make them waterproof.

What’s so concerning about Teflon?

The concern over using Teflon has to do with a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (also shortened and called PFOA), which was used to make Teflon until 2013. Trace amounts of this chemical could be found on cookware, even though it was meant to burn off during the manufacturing process, and PFOA is linked to health conditions like chronic kidney disease, thyroid disorders, liver disease, testicular cancer, infertility, and low birth weight.

Not-so-fun-fact: The chemical was so ubiquitous in the United States that more than 98 percent of people in a 1999 study had it in their blood (not necessarily from cooking, but from other environmental exposure as well). That led to a program called the PFOA Stewardship Program by the EPA to get eight leading PFOA companies, including DuPont, the maker of Teflon (they have since spun it off into a separate company called Chemours), to eliminate PFOA use by 2015. Which they did, ahead of schedule, in 2013.

What are the risks while cooking?

Using nonstick cookware as directed is safe. PTFE itself is inert, meaning it’s not going to react with chemicals inside or outside your body. The American Cancer Society is not concerned about PTFE in terms of a cancer risk.

But heating PTFE-coated pots and pans very hot (to more than 660°Fahrenheit; for example if you placed an empty nonstick pan on high heat on the stove for a long time), can cause temporary symptoms like coughing, fever, or a sore throat — similar reactions you’d get to other irritating chemicals or even excessive natural particles like dust or pollen in the air. Again, these are temporary symptoms and not long-term effects.

What are the environmental risks?

Despite eliminating PFOA from the manufacturing process, environmental groups are still wary of PTFE-type products for their possible health impact. The Environmental Working Group has expressed concerns over the environmental impact of the chemicals that replaced PFOA in the manufacturing processes. One replacement chemical, GenX, has been in the news as recently as this spring after being found in residential water near a plant in Fayetteville, NC.

So if you have lingering concerns, do as the EWG suggests: Go back to old-fashioned cookware like stainless steel or cast iron cookware instead of nonstick pots and pans. (Yes, cast iron can be nonstick — even when you’re making eggs! — as long as you season it properly).

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